Friday, 31 October 2014

Sew It On Yourself, She Said.....

I haven’t really been able to focus upon my embroidery for the last few weeks.Working on a project to make 2000 origami butterflies is keeping my fingers really busy. One thing that I have noticed about making the butterflies is that, contrary to my expectations – the logical tedium of making the same thing over and over again; I am really enjoying it. Yes, believe it or not, I didn’t at first either, but it’s so calming to just put my full concentration on matching corners and lines and folding the square pieces of paper to create butterflies.

It’s almost addictive to see how many I can make in day. So yes, I am really enjoying it – call it origami therapy if you will. Whatever it is or isn’t, is so irrelevant because there is a designated purpose in doing [they are needed to decorate a canopy for a friend’s parents’ 60th wedding anniversary lunch], there’s satisfaction in getting it done and, it is creative work to boot. I delight at every butterfly that is made, marvelling at how a square piece of paper can be folded into myriad designs. 

 At this point in time, there is chaos, a total disruption of routine in my home. I have been short staffed and in particular, without a cook for the past 6 -7 weeks. Despite a string of interviews and trials, I haven’t yet found someone suited to my need, who cooks well enough. This has meant that along with making the butterflies, I have also had to get down to the nitty-gritty of cooking everyday food, rather than just those party dishes that I enjoy making.

At this point you are probably wondering what relevance either the origami butterflies or daily cooking chores have anything to do with a sewing journal and you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking upon those lines. Had I been in your shoes, without experiencing unbelievable calm in the midst of chaos and work, such as I have seen in this period of externalizing of energy and conversations - when I am generally an introverted sort of person, finding no scope for deep introspection, I would have thought the same. But it is these things -the origami butterfly making ritual and that of daily cooking that have actually saved the day for me. They have enabled a focus on things that need doing rather than looking towards things that I have wanted to bring into play, thinking and mooning and mulling over things – shall I write this, what shall I do now etc,  as is the norm. And what’s best is that most of this work is not about handling people and their idiosyncrasies but actually being able to put my mind to doing things. I have to confess that even though it has been challenging, for the most part because it’s not the norm, I have no real reason to complain.

 With the onset of Diwali, there has been so much to do. I first started with wanting the kids I teach art, to enjoy the festive season by making their own diyas and rangoli.  This meant shopping around for stuff they could use, painting and decorating pieces that they could work with and be inspired by. This exercise eventually led us to take up a stall at the condominium Diwali mela, with only 5 days notice, where the kids and I invited people to come paint their own diya. The stall was an amazing success. It was possibly the most happening stall in the compound and Mahipal and I didn’t get a chance to go around and see what other vendors had to offer. As one mother put it, our stall was akin to the games stall which the older kids had fun at, and the little ones usually have nowhere to go, so this filled that lacuna. We started at 5.30pm, on the dot, and didn’t wind up till 11pm. I cannot say that we made a ton of money because we didn’t, as our rates were so cheap that we just about broke even, but the turn-out was amazing. And that huge black stain on the red, tentwallah-satin table cloth – with little glimpses of green, yellow, orange and other hues that went into making that extra large spill of dripping paint, was proof enough that the kids had a blast.

Inspired by the origami butterflies, I had decided to make origami boxes for sending out little gifts to my friends, neighbours and family this Diwali, which meant that for three Sundays in a row, I was working. At first the novelty of going back to work with paint and brush, after years, was such an amazing feeling and then making the origami boxes all added up to the idea that I was actually using my creative skills in a way that catered to the functional aspect of the season. And that felt good.

Now this is very significant, because even though I use sewing as self-expression and there is a function to this, in that it allows me to explore deeper ideas than just doing things for the more mundane functions such as I have written above. But, the idea that my work - my creativity, which is the basis of the work I do in the world, that this is mostly used for self expression - as art, has been cause for considerable angst. 

It could be that having trained as a designer, this is sort of in my blood – the idea of form follows function has been ingrained enough to flow through my being, and the evolution from design to art thus fraught with multiple questions? Over the years, I have quelled the discomfort and gone with the flow. But, it felt good making things for my friends. And when they called or wrote sms’s to thank me, noting that they had found the gift beautiful, especially so because they had recognized the labour of love, was gratifying indeed. This personalizing of traditional diwali gifts instead of store bought items was appreciated and it got me thinking.

Painting diyas for the art class also led me to paint a bunch to light and decorate my own home with, this Diwali. Armed with so much stuff, I embarked on a rather ambitious rangoli outside my front door.  I was reeling from the agony of unused muscles and incredibly stiff lower limbs for about three days! But, flushed with the glow of praise and appreciation from so many people, for this effort, re-awakened in me the idea of functionality and art – fulfilling the function of more mundane, everyday aspects of living, where I worked to create with my own hands as opposed to designing and then designating the work to someone else.

All of this was building up into something that hadn’t quite crystallized in my mind and the crowning glory was a chance remark that someone made at a Diwali party, the day before Lakshmi Puja and my elaborate rangoli effort. I was wearing a silk Tanchoi saree [brocade] and getting out of the car, the heel of my sandal, sort of caught at the base of the saree. On hindsight, it must have got stuck in the saree-fall, but without really thinking about what the issue was, I lifted the folds off the shoe. They let go easily enough, and I walked into a beautifully adorned home, met many friends and had engaging and polite conversations. In this bustle of socializing, the saree hem caught again. This time, when I pulled at the folds, the fall must have come undone [the lining at the hem which is about 4 inches wide and runs across the base of the underside of the saree, to enable a better fall of the fabric].  After a while I suddenly felt myself tripping and looked down at the saree to find the fall looping beneath. Philosophically, I thought this was my cue to go home - tripping over my undone saree fall wasn’t a befitting end to such a gay event.
I was seated in one of the bedrooms waiting to use the washroom, before I embarked upon the long haul to Gurgaon, when someone else walked in, and we struck up a conversation. She was a rather elderly lady wearing a traditional Kanjeevaram saree in a colour combination of soft, olivish-lime-green with maroon and gold zari border, such that I haven’t seen around for ages. She had a short bob hair-cut, her hair totally grey. She’d overheard me ask my host’s grand-daughter to find me a safety pin and asked what happened. I narrated by story about the fall coming undone and sighing that now, in the midst of my more-than-hectic schedule,  I had to find someone locally, to put it back on. Very quietly and calmly, as if it was the most normal thing in the world, she said: do it yourself. And I was stunned into silence.

She didn’t know who I was, or that needle and thread was the basis of my work. She didn’t know me at all.  We were total strangers. I sat there stunned. I wasn’t as stunned about the fact that she didn’t know sewing  was  the essence of my work, but that I, whose hands played with needle and thread every day, hadn’t thought of this simple solution – something that should have occurred to me as naturally as she had said it. I mean what was the merit of working with needle and thread to build up these wonderful stories around it, if I couldn’t even think in terms of doing my own repair work?  I was ashamed, I was embarrassed and contrite.

On the hour long drive, back home to Gurgaon, I was deep in thought. I realised that even though I am adept at working with the needle and had used it to make little gift bags for Diwali [for the goodies inside the origami boxes], and more, fact is that I didn’t think of sewing as work I should be doing, beyond the decorative – it never even occurred to me.  And in a sense, this meant that I didn’t really accord the same kind of value that I would like be given to the humble needle and thread - one of the reasons why I even write this journal.

I mean, it was a wake-up call and seriously, even as I write, I am astounded by the kind of cultural moorings - ideas that have taken root in my mind. It made me see that changing one’s thought-patterns wasn’t an easy thing. It took a lot of effort to work around these subconscious ideas that we have imbibed through the environment that we live and grow up in. I hadn’t seen my mother or grandmother sew but I had worked a lifetime with textiles; admired the skill of Indian artisans and was in awe of their ability to do wonders with needle and thread. I had picked up the needle to bring attention and value to this work that I so loved. But, despite two decades of working with needle and thread, I didn’t think of doing my own sewing for things around the house and general repair work in daily living.

 The idea of stitching, back-on, the undone fall on my saree was not something that came naturally to me. That it took a total stranger to remind me, was a wake-up call indeed! Sew it on yourself she said....the words still ringing in my ears, way above the din of the fireworks on Diwali night. 

For those interested in reading the story about the butterfly that enchanted me which was the beginning of the 'Butterfly effect'


  1. Hi Gopika
    What a fantastic post - very evocative and thought provoking.
    The idea of repetitive action is familiar in my practice. Your making the butterflies repeatedly allows for a different emotional and meditative balance to occur - time to allow thoughts to flow through you and settle in a different way from our usual way of thinking around deadlines and artificial requirements.
    I have been looking at whether it is possible to imbue work with an extra quality if meditating and being mindful and thinking about mourning during stitching.
    thank you

    1. Thank you Beverly. I am glad you enjoyed reading about my Diwali madness.

      I think all of us who sew, know and cherish the repetitive action - there are times when I have the luxury of sewing in silence that I actually wait for the 'hiss' of the thread being pulled through the fabric - its an unusual kind of music but it aids the musing - and when the pattern or work is complete then its almost as if the finishing has enabled the thoughts to settle.

      I know that you work centres around the idea of mourning and through our exchange of emails earlier, I have been thinking of my own work with stains as mourning - of a loss of sense of self.

      There is a sense of loss, there is pain that is akin to grieving, if not mourning – when we retreat into ourselves to heal because we feel shame it is akin to mourning – we mourn the loss of people in our lives, those who have distanced themselves because they cannot associate with what we have done or said or something they may have uncovered about us, but is that any different to someone leaving us in death?

      But in terms of being mindful of and thinking about mourning during stitching, I would be most interested in what you do uncover and hope that you will share this at some point.

      Thanks for reading and writing your thoughts.

  2. Gopika, your Diwali sounds like a holiday whirlwind!

    On your topic of torn hems: a few years ago I told a friend that the back hem of her skirt was raveling. She said, "Yes, I know. I paid good money for the deconstruction in this Issey Miyake."

    My students enjoy learning mending techniques. These lessons also give me a chance to show students my grandmother's sewing basket, with it's gourd and light bulb for holding socks in place during mending.

    The picture of the candies reminds me of paper May Day baskets. And on the subject of paper folding, here are links to a public project organized by Rick Ruderer in St Louis, Missouri.

    1. Thank you Tom, for reading and writing in. I really enjoyed your story about the deconstruction in the Miyake garment, however, if I had let the 'fal'l - which isn't quite a hem, but it is a hemming stitch that sews this short 6 inch lining on the bottom of a saree to give it a better fall, then I would surely have tripped and fallen over it - but the idea of deconstructing the hem is fascinating indeed.

      Your grandmother's sewing basket sounds fabulous - and the gourd and light-bulb allow for imaginative ruminations on the basket too. I don't have such memories around sewing and always enjoy hearing of such stories from those whose parents and grandparents sewed around them. This legacy of sewing, passed down from one generation to another is very interesting and provides a fascinating continuum to the thread.....